Wednesday, May 25, 2011

OTF's 32 Most Interesting Prospects: No. 15, Ryan Verdugo, LHP

I'm winding down in the Top-32 Most Interesting Prospects list for 2011, and at No. 15, I have left-handed pitcher Ryan Verdugo. Now, Verdugo isn't a high-ceiling pitcher like some guys on this list, and in terms of his tools, I wonder if he could transition and find a spot on the Giants' Major League roster. Nonetheless, he is a high-strikeout pitcher who has put up great numbers in the minors, so I he has some promise and was worth taking a look at in this spot.

Verdugo came out of baseball powerhouse LSU as a pretty under-the-radar pitcher. He was drafted twice by the Giants, in the 47th round in the 2007 MLB draft, and in the 9th round of the 2008 draft. Verdugo is a pitcher who relies heavily on his fastball, but does possess a slider and curve (his curve was rated a three-plus according to Rob Gordon of the MLBA). Verdugo did have some hype out of high school, as he was won the Mr. Baseball award in Washington as a senior. There was some issues with his health though, as he underwent Tommy John surgery while in Junior College, which hurt his stock after he declared for the draft again after he finished Junior College in 2007.

He broke into professional ball in 2008, and performed well in his first year as a pro, showcasing some good stuff as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League (he was primarily used as a starter while at LSU). He made eight appearances in Arizona and struck out 19 batters in 13 innings pitched, while allowing nine hits, three runs and six walks. Verdugo finished the season with a 2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 3.17 K/BB ratio.

In his first full year as a professional, the Giants promoted Verdugo to Augusta and he made 21 appearances with the Green Jackets and finished five games. In 32.1 IP, he struck out 45 batters and allowed only 19 hits and 6 runs. Walks however, were a bit of a concern for the lefty, as he walked 19 batters, good for a 5.3 BB/9. The high walk rate killed his overall K/BB ratio in the Sally, lowering it 2.37 (he had a K/9 of 13.5, which is very impressive). Still, though his overall numbers were pretty impressive for a 22-year old in his first professional season, as he finished the year with a 1.39 ERA and 1.18 WHIP.

Still under the radar going into 2010 (he was not mentioned in Baseball America's Top-30 or John Sickels's Top-20 Giants lists), Verdugo started the year in Augusta again, pitching 32 innings and striking out 50 while allowing 26 hits and 14 walks. His walk rate went down (3.9) and his K/BB ratio went up (3.57), and thus, the Giants organization decided to promote him to High Single-A San Jose in July. In the Cal League, the walk issues came back (his BB/9 jumped back up to 5.6), but he still struck guys out at a good rate (12.9) and posted excellent ERA and WHIP numbers (1.47 and 1.11, respectively).

This year, Verdugo got a little bit more attention from prospect analysts, as Sickels listed him as an honorable mention in his Top-20 list, and Baseball America ranked him the 25th best Giants prospect in the organization. However, the biggest change for Verdugo this year was his switch to the rotation in Richmond. Primarily a reliever for most of his minor league career (he only started one game, and that was in San Jose in 2009), many wondered if Verdugo had the versatility to go five to seven innings a game (his career high in innings pitched was in 2010 when he threw 62 IP).

It has paid off though, as he has been a solid addition to the Flying Squirrels pitching staff. He has made eight starts and thrown 41 IP, but he is posting a solid ERA (3.07) and a decent WHIP (1.37). Additionally, while his strikeout rates are down from previous years (expected since he is pitching more innings and facing batters more than once in a game), he is still showing good strikeout ability (9.7 K/9). He could show better command (2.75 K/BB ratio), but it certainly is above average and an improvement from his previous stint in San Jose. Also, he is coming off a 6.1 inning, 5-hit, 10 strikeout performance against Erie in his most recent outing, which is a good sign of how well he is making batters miss while logging more innings as a starter (he did earn the loss though, unfortunately, but it was still a pretty solid start nonetheless).

Physically, there is still some concern whether or not Verdugo will be able to transition his Minor League success (career 2.10 ERA in the minors) to the Majors. He doesn't sport an electric fastball (it goes in the 92 MPH range), and there have long been questions about his command (carer 2.81 K/BB) and secondary pitches. That being said, Verduo has shown flashes of promise in the minors, and he tore it up in the Arizona Fall League last year. Here is what Fangraphs writers, Carson Cistuli, said about Verdugo in a review of the AFL:

"Scottsdale’s Ryan Verdugo went straight to the top of the SCOUT pitching charts last night after doing this against the Phoenix Desert Dogs: 17 BF, 4.0 IP, 3 BB, 9 K. He’s made all of one start in his minor league career, which began in 2008 after being drafted in the ninth round by San Francisco. He has 167 K in 113.0 IP across four levels, most recently in the High-A California League."

Statistically speaking, Verdugo has shown great strides and improvement in his time in the Giants organization. Furthermore, his transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation has been interesting, mainly because it has increased his value greatly. That being said, Verdugo's future seems to be very cloudy at this point. I think he has a shot in terms of becoming a decent Major League pitcher. His ability to make batters miss can't be debated (12.3 career K/9). At the very least, he seems like he could develop into a Dan Runzler-esque option out of the bullpen for the Giants in the future, and considering Jeremy Affeldt has struggled to regain his 2009 form the past two years, a left-hander like Verdugo could be an enticing option.

At the same time though, it seems like the Giants are grooming Verdugo to be a starter, and as we all know there isn't much room in the Giants rotation for another starter. Furthermore, he's behind other top-tier starting pitching prospects like Zack Wheeler and Eric Surkamp (and rightfully so), and with the June Rule 4 Draft loaded with pitching talent, one has to wonder how much time Verdugo has left with the Giants. If anything, he's probably trade fodder at this point, mainly because he's a good arm that would bring some value to any impending deal this year or this off-season.

I think Verdugo could have some impact for the Giants, and like Runzler, he could be a cheap, effective bullpen option. Unfortunately, if he remains a starter, his days in the Giants organization seem numbered. It's just a matter of time of when Brian Sabean makes that deal, whether it's this year or after the season is over.